Kurt Seligmann: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object

Art Practical, May 31, 2015

The first U.S. retrospective in over 50 years of Swiss-born surrealist Kurt Seligmann (1900–1962), First Message from the Spirit World of the Object doubles as the first show at the newly relocated Weinstein Gallery. Seligmann was the first of the war-exiled anarcho-communist members of the Paris surrealist group to arrive to America in 1939, and unlike most, he never left. He taught at the New School and Brooklyn College through the ’50s and eventually settled in Upstate NY, but his reputation immediately faded after his early death from an accidental gunshot wound in 1962. First Message thus represents an opportunity to reconsider surrealist abstraction before it was obscured by the rise of Abstract Expressionism.


The strength of Seligmann’s draftsmanship—which would have seemed a liability during Abstract Expressionism—now creates the impression of how ahead of his time he was to our post-Giger, post-anime vantage point. This is especially apparent in a group of minimally colored canvases from the late ’50s, as well as from a series of black ink drawings from a collaboration with poet Nat Herz called Impossible Landscapes (1944). Though he exhibits traces of influence—Arp in the ’30s, Dali, Masson, and Ernst in the ’40s—Seligmann could be no more individual a painter, developing a unique vocabulary suggestive of armor and drapery, on the one hand, and bone and vegetation, on the other. Through such elements he builds curious figures, somewhat reminiscent of 16th-century mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portraits made from assemblages of discrete objects.


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